Twenty-five young tilapia, each about six inches in length, swam in circles, darting away from the walls of their enclosure. As Joseph Ferdinand gingerly peeled off the Styrofoam tank covers, the fish scurried up to the water’s edge, searching for tidbits of food.
It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place at a zoo or an aquarium. But Ferdinand is rearing the tilapia inside the cramped confines of his west Bronx studio apartment. Two 55-gallon tanks line the wall opposite his bed, leaving only a few feet of walking space between.
Living with fish in the Bronx requires some adjustments. Ferdinand takes great care to clean the tanks daily, filtering out a portion of the water to keep the potential stench at bay. In fact, walking into his kitchen area through the front door, the subtle hum of tank filters is the only clue that he’s got an operating fish farm just 15 feet away. In a few months, the juvenile tilapia will double in size and will be “good for your dinner,” Ferdinand said, nodding and pointing enthusiastically at his flourishing crop.
Ferdinand’s roommates are his experimental first batch of fish. The plan is that his fledgling organization, newly-dubbed Bronx Aquaponics, will grow to a 20,000 fish per year sustainable urban fish-farming venture, eventually moving from his living room to a community garden nearby. He’s certain the effort will not only create jobs in an area with unemployment exceeding 17 percent, but will also bring more fresh produce, plants and protein to the west Bronx, which fights high rates of diabetes and obesity.
“For the last five years, I felt hopeless as far as this struggle goes. I was tired of trying to talk to politicians,” the 58-year-old Trinidad native said of his neighborhood’s fight against joblessness and health ailments. He shrugged. “Then I realized I don’t need someone to do for me what I can do for myself. I have spirit in me to do what my community needs.”
Ferdinand and his team, which now includes four other volunteers, think aquaponics is part of the answer. Aquaponics is a hybrid between aquaculture, the practice of farming water-dwelling animals, and hydroponics, a method for growing plants using water instead of soil. Together, the two systems create a model where fish wastewater act as fertilizer for plants, and the plants filter the dirty water, which circulates back to the fish.
The group is still working to gather $40,000 to $50,000 in grant money or city funds and get approval to take over two neighborhood community gardens that have fallen into disrepair. Then, Bronx Aquaponics hopes to start out by building a greenhouse with a central fresh-water fish tank big enough to house 2,000 tilapia.
Piping from the tank would transport nutrient-rich water to plants. Tours and teaching workshops would educate the community about healthy eating and food production, and produce would be sold and given away to food pantries. Finally, Ferdinand hopes to hire student interns from the community to help maintain the gardens and expand to other parts of the Bronx.
“When you put a seed in the ground, it’s something that needs maintenance,” he said. “You have to have people to do that type of thing, and that’s what would create the employment.”
Ferdinand, a former subway electrician, has been on disability assistance for 10 years and volunteering with the Mount Hope Housing Corporation for six.
“I’m not really looking for a paycheck or a salary,” Ferdinand said. “There are people much worse off than me. I might be in want, but I’m certainly not in need. I could stay at home and drink beers all day and not care, but that’s not who I am. My role is to be decent and productive, even though I’m on disability.”
He first learned about aquaponics two years ago when he went to Washington, D.C., for the National People’s Action conference, a meeting that drew nonprofit organizations from across the country. He met a representative from the Buffalo, N.Y.-based Massachusetts Avenue Project, a successful urban farm that dabbles in aquaponics.
“Ever since aquaponics was explained to me, every living day since then, it was weighing heavy on me,” Ferdinand said. “It’s like, you’re living your life and something hits you and you say ‘Yes, this is why I’m here on this planet.’ That’s exactly what I felt. This is what I need to do.”
Finally, Ferdinand took a trip to Buffalo in March to see the fish farm in action. Jesse Meeder, Massachusetts Avenue Project’s farm director, said the organization owns three-quarters of an acre of land and two greenhouses with plans for a third. They produce 35,000 tilapia annually, selling to a variety of restaurants, delis and farmer’s markets.
After the trip, Ferdinand started contacting friends from church and other community organizations to get involved. Among them was Miguel Hamond, who, since June, has been Ferdinand’s right-hand man.
Hamond, 31, grew up in Washington Heights, and worked for Pastors for Peace, an interfaith missionary nonprofit, in Texas, Central America and Cuba. Later, he helped found a chapter of Food Not Bombs, a national nonprofit group that serves free vegan meals as a protest against war and poverty. Hamond returned to New York in 2004 and wound up going back to school to study nursing. After Ferdinand got back from the trip to Buffalo, he approached Hamond at church.
“Joseph came up to me so excited and said, ‘Man, you gotta get on this,’” Hamond said. “I thought about it and realized the unhealth of our community. It’s literally a food warfare out there. You don’t find accessible food. So, it was easy for me to get on board with this.”
While both men are clearly passionate about what the future may hold for the project, Hamond is the more organized of the pair, carrying around a folder full of documents, drafts of funding proposals and notes from meetings scribbled on scraps of paper.
For now, they’ve decided to operate under the umbrella of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a multifaceted community outreach nonprofit, with the intent of breaking off on their own in a few years. The coalition is well known in the community and among city agents and has the kind of cache that will help them get larger grants, said Orlando Torres, one of the Bronx Aquaponics group members.
Ferdinand said they’ve received verbal support from local officials like Assemblyman Nelson Castro and New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who confirmed his support in a statement: “If done successfully, aquaponics would give our community new sources of fresh produce which have overwhelming health benefits.”
Ferdinand’s crew is also working to get GreenThumb, a city Parks and Recreation subsidiary that runs community gardens, to turn management of two locations over to them. One is on the corner of 176th and Walton Avenue, just two blocks from Ferdinand’s apartment, and the other at Grand and West Tremont avenues.
With all that’s left to accomplish, Ferdinand and Hamond still light up when they talk about their big plans: feeding the community, educating parents about healthy food, providing jobs.
“We envision a collective,” Hamond said. “And then, you know, eat fish.”